What’s Easy

I was at a friend’s house the other night and we were talking about small things, making jokes, and catching up a bit. We were standing out on his porch huddled around a little campfire and the sun had been down for a few hours.

We look out and see a girl, probably around 18-19, rambling to herself. She looked at us and, still rambling, made her way to the fire. We let her stay, offered her some water and a granola bar, and kept our conversation going. She never really engaged with us in conversation, but stood on the side energetically rambling on about serpents and black triangles and other things we had no way of comprehending any meaning of. She was wearing tattered clothes, and looked very unkempt for someone walking around the streets.

Two things were clear to us: 1) this girl was tripping on some sort of stimulant and 2) she has a hard life. The second might seem a little presumptuous of us, but in her current state she looked hungry, scared, and sad.

A few minutes later she put down her cup of water and left the porch to meet an older woman out on the street. Both of them walked away down the street until we couldn’t see them anymore. My friend turned to me and asked “Why do you think hard drugs are such a problem in poor neighborhoods?” I just sort of looked at the fire and thought for a while. The neighborhood we were in is by all accounts low-income, and fairly often we see people in that neighborhood obviously high on some sort of hard drug. Drugs that are more intense than alcohol or marijuana, and leave the users rambling and wandering in the streets.

I’ve seen evidence of this in other impoverished neighborhoods across the country in news stories or articles I’ve read. I’m not foolish enough to believe that all low-income neighborhoods have a drug problem, but my friend’s question still lingered in my mind:

“Why do some poor people use hard drugs?”

I started to think of Rational Choice Theorists George Homan and James Coleman. While having differing opinions on RCT, the two Sociologists maintain that individuals make choices based on weighing their options, finding paths to desired outcomes, and make decisions based on the given social context. The option that produces the most desired outcome with the least cost or resistance is more likely the option that the individual chooses.

Here is a quick example: I want a hamburger, but I don’t have any ingredients for making one. I have two options, A) I go to a grocery store and buy buns, meat, lettuce, a tomato, ketchup and mustard which I then take home and use to prepare and then eat a hamburger. Or B) I go my closest fast-food joint, buy a hamburger and eat it. Let’s see what I’m weighing in here; in option A I’d be spending about $20 and 1 hour for one hamburger, in option B I’d spend about $4 and 10 minutes for one hamburger. The social context that I live in has created a marketplace that offers these two options, and while option A is most likely healthier, considering efficiency I’m going to choose option B.

What does this have to do with hard drugs and low-income users? I believe that poor people who use hard drugs do so for one simple reason, and the same reason why I chose option B: it’s easy. If you are in a social context that has given you a low quality of life then you generally have two options: improve that life for a better one or make yourself feel okay about the life you have now. Improving your life when you have low-income in our current social context is difficult, specifically because you have less access to resources that can improve your situation compared to people with higher-income. If you are unsatisfied with your quality of life, finding ways to feel good about it can be equally difficult. But our society has created a third and much easier option for those in this specific situation, which is to self-medicate with hard drugs. Hard drugs can be much more accessible than life-improving resources, and certain drugs (while they tend to be more dangerous) are inexpensive. Self-medicating with these drugs is a rational choice, then, which is made by people weighing the options given to them in their social context, finding a desired outcome, and choosing the most efficient path to it.

It is my suggestion that we as a society recognize the efficiency of hard drugs as compared to other options in the low-income community, and create safer options that are more efficient and accessible.

If you have any other thoughts on the matter or would like to share your point of view, I encourage you to comment! All discussion is welcome.

On Bruce Alexander and Social Fulfillment 

Bruce alexander created an experiment in the 70s that explained the effect of environment on delinquent social behaviors; primarily addiction. What he found is that rats are social beings, in much the same way humans are social beings. When a rat is taken out of a constructive and positive social environment, it will resort to unhealthy addiction behaviors. When a rat is in a fulfilling social environment, however, the rat interacts positively with others and its general well being increases. 

What does this mean for socialization theory? 

Bruce Alexander equates this rat behavior with human behavior and explains that in a similar experiment using humans, the absence of a fulfilling social environment would cause an addiction to take its place. In sociological terms, this means that when humans have a social fulfillment deficit it creates a void in their life. Humans need social fulfillment to feel content with their place in society and need a community presence. If a human is without social fulfillment, he/she is in a deficit and needs to fill the void. What Dr. Alexander found is that this void is filled by the first and most efficient form of pleasure and satisfaction. The void can be filled with anything from smoking to exercise, and its repeated use leads to addiction. If illicit drugs are available, this is what fills the void; drug use is efficient in satisfaction, so addiction is common among drug users.

If humans have a social deficit in unfulfilling environments, that means humans have a social budget. This social budget is determined by the amount of social fulfillment a human is or is not receiving in daily life. When a human is well connected with his/her community and/or family they gain fulfillment and achieve social satisfaction. This is maintained by daily social connection. When a human isn’t connected, and has little to no social fulfillment, he/she will sink into a deficit and satisfaction becomes more and more out of reach. This lack of connection can be caused by several things surrounding an unfulfilling environment, including: a dysfunctional family, limited social ties, difficulties in communication, etc. The most significant cause of a social deficit, though, is the inability to learn and use social skills.

This is where socialization comes in. Socialization is the process of an individual understanding the culture/society around them, and developing social skills to thrive in it. Most humans enter this process during brain and body development during childhood, and this is when they learn language, social cues, morals, and social norms. It is crucial to develop social skills in this stage, and learn how to use them to engage with their society later in life. If a person fails to build social skills during the socialization process, achieving social satisfaction as an adult becomes increasingly difficult.

The findings of Dr. Alexander’s experiment show us that a healthy social environment is crucial to social fulfillment,  and social deficit can lead to substance addiction or worse. If humans never learn to gain fulfillment through social skills during socialization, they are doomed to a social deficit. We must understand the importance of social well-being and understand that creating a fulfilling social environment requires not only a community, but also social skills to connect with that community.